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One Night in Geneva:
The Birth of a Prosperous Progeny

August 30th, 2022

In 1831, her first novel having achieved pop-culture status thanks to a string of adaptations in England, Europe, and America (see last week’s post), Mary Shelley introduced the second edition of Frankenstein by writing: “Once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.”

Little could she have foreseen just how prosperous it would become, going forth to spawn countless stage, screen, and print adaptations.

All this month, and concluding with this special installment in honor of Mary Shelley’s 225th birthday, I have been posting about some of the Frankenstein adaptations discussed on the August 2 installment of the podcast Horror Drafts.

So, to celebrate the mother of that prosperous progeny, I’d like to recommend a few films set entirely or in part during that fateful night when Lord Byron told his guests: “We will each write a ghost story.”

First up is the prologue to Bride of Frankenstein (1935), directed by James Whale and starring Elsa Lanchester as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Gavin Gordon as Lord Byron, and Douglas Walton as Percy Bysshe Shelley. Heavily romanticized, the prologue shows Mary doing needlepoint as Percy writes and Lord Byron gazes out a window at a powerful thunderstorm. “I should like to think that an irate Jehovah was pointing those arrows of lightning directly at my head,” he announces, then turns to prod Mary into telling them a tale suitable for such a night.

That little four-minute vignette (which you can view in its entirety here) is only one of over a half dozen cinematic dramatizations of that fateful night in Geneva.

In the 1980s, no fewer than three versions appeared, the first being Gothic (1986), directed by the always fascinating Ken Russell and starring Natasha Richardson as Mary, Julian Sands as Percy, Gabriel Byrne as Byron, and Myriam Cyr as Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont. Written by Stephen Volk, this depiction of that dark and stormy night is the flip side of Whale’s romanticized version.

You can see it for yourself on Tubi or on Amazon’s BFI player.

Just two years after the release of Gothic, two more Geneva films appeared within months of each other.

The first, Rowing with the Wind, appeared in October 1988. Filmed in Spain under the title Remando al Viento, it is directed by Gonzalo Suárez and stars Hugh Grant as Byron, Lizzy McInnerny as Mary, Valentine Pelka as Percy, and Elizabeth Hurley as Claire Clairmont. It is a beautiful yet uneven film, with a haunting score and a performance by Hugh Grant that actually seems to work at times.

Another bit of odd casting occurs in Ivan Passer’s Haunted Summer, which features a supporting performance by Alex Winter (Bill of the Bill and Ted movies) as Dr. John Polidori.  Other cast members include Eric Stoltz as Percy, Philip Anglim as Byron, Laura Dern as Claire, and Alice Krige in a strong performance as Mary. Although released in December 1988, the adaptation had been in development for years, with John Huston originally attached to direct. Like Rowing with the Wind, it is a frustratingly uneven film.

Rowing with the Wind is available on Blu-Ray; Haunted Summer, on DVD and (for the true 80’s experience) on VHS tape. As far as I know, neither is available to stream.

Perhaps the most authentic entry into this subgenre of Frankenstein films is the AMC biopic Mary Shelley (2017). Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour and featuring Elle Fanning in the title role (pictured at the top of this post), it provides a thoroughly watchable introduction to the author’s life, opening shortly before she meets Percy and continuing through that faithful night in Geneva.

And for a sci-fi spin on Mary and her monster, you’ll want to check out Season 12, Episode 8 of the long-running Doctor Who series. Titled The Haunting of Villa Diodati (2020) it is directed by Emma Sullivan, written by Maxine Alderton, and stars Jodi Whittaker as the 13th incarnation of the titular time traveler. This one depicts Mary (played by Lili Miller) being inspired by a confrontation with a time-traveling cyborg. Stream it on HBO.

For more about these and other Frankenstein-related films, plays, comics, and cartoons be sure to check out the August installment of the Horror Drafts podcast. In addition, get ready for this November when Prime Stage Theatre will premiere my own adaptation of Frankenstein, presented live at The New Hazlett Theatre and via VOD. More details coming soon.

No doubt about it. Shelley’s progeny continues to prosper.